Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: The Birds of New Jersey

William Boyle is known and respected for his intimate knowledgeable of New Jersey's bird populations. He has studied birds in the state for several decades, including service on the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. His new book, The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution, is his latest contribution to the state's ornithological record.

The Birds of New Jersey is an annotated and illustrated bird checklist for the state. It includes all of the bird species whose appearance in the state could be confirmed by the New Jersey Bird Records Committee through mid 2010. It also includes birds that were formerly present but extirpated from the state, such as Heath Hen (a subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken) and Passenger Pigeon. The book follows the nomenclature and taxonomic order of the AOU list as of 2009.

The book is based on several sources of data. Chief among them are the records kept by the New Jersey Bird Records Committee, which maintains the state checklist and archives the documentation of submitted records that it evaluates. Then there is a large body of historical ornithological work, ranging from catalogues of the state's bird species to classics like Witmer Stone's Bird Studies at Old Cape May. There are also the sightings from more recent birders, reported to New Jersey Birds editors, the JerseyBirds email list, eBird, and elsewhere. Historical trends can be gleaned from long-term projects like the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts. Finally, there is the data compiled from 1993 to 1997 during New Jersey's breeding bird atlas project, which culminated in the publication of Birds of New Jersey in 1999.

Each bird's seasonal distribution and abundance are described in the species accounts that accompany each heading. These accounts are mostly short paragraphs and note recent trends, if applicable. Some birds are clearly expanding their range and occur in New Jersey more frequently than in the past, like Cave Swallow. Others have been declining and occurring with less frequency, like Ruffed Grouse and Golden-winged Warbler. Each account is accompanied by a range map showing where it occurs in the state, with separate colors indicating summer, winter, migration, and year-round occurrence. In the case of unusual or rare species, the map is white with red dots indicating individual records. For exceptionally rare species, the individual records are listed at the end of the account with the location and date of each sighting. Only about one in three or one in four species are illustrated, but the photographs that accompany the accounts are excellent.

No doubt, serious birders in New Jersey will want this book in their reference collections. It provides valuable information on status and population trends. It also illuminates the circumstances surrounding some of the rarer bird records and provides citations for further research. Unfortunately, checklists have a way of becoming obsolete very quickly, particularly in a state as saturated with good birders as New Jersey. Already, the Bergen County Pink-footed Goose from March 2011 has challenged the completeness of Boyle's list (though it should be noted that the sighting has not been approved for the official checklist yet).

For the most up-to-date list of what records have been accepted, it is best to check the NJBRC website rather than a printed checklist. For birders new to the state or for New Jerseyans new to birding, another book by Boyle will be more useful than Birds of New Jersey for learning where to see birds: A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey. That book describes the best birding locations in the state and suggests specific sites to search for each species. For a more detailed view of bird distribution in the state, particularly breeding bird distribution, Birds of New Jersey by Walsh et al. is still the best resource, as far as I know.

William J. Boyle, Jr., The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution. Kevin T. Karlson, photographic editor. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011. Amazon.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.